Napoleon Series Archive 2015

Macdonald's reliability.

Since the subject has come up yet again of the 'reliability' of Macdonald's memoirs with a lot of inaccurate criticism being thrown at them, particularly from the writings of Col. Elting, I am setting out some of the more important points on the subject.

The reliability of memoirs is comparative: all memoirs are, by definition, subjective and represent one person's viewpoint; however honest the reporter, their actual observation or memory of events may be at fault.

Looking at Macdonald's 'Souvenirs' (published in English as 'Recollections'):

1) They score highly on authenticity. We know when they were written (1825-26); the manuscript was given unchanged to a respected historian, Camille Rousset, by Macdonald's granddaughter for publication in the 1890s
2) They were not written for publication but for the information of Macdonald's then infant son following the death of his third wife. This means that he had no motive for expressing political bias but may be assumed to have been anxious to present the best case to his son - which is what all memoir writers do anyway.
3) They were written from memory and were not revised - Macdonald made this clear in a few footnotes - he said there were bound to be minor errors. Rousset confirmed that there were no significant amendments to the manuscript.
4) Macdonald's handwriting was bad and his grammar and punctuation often sloppy, Rousset did say he had to do some tidying up. There may well be some transcription errors and other errors may have crept in in printing and in translation.
5) Macdonald was writing his own story, not history, it is entirely his view of events and largely limits itself to what he actually witnessed.
6) The work is very patchy with some trivial anecdotes told in detail and important historical passages skipped over lightly, the narrative is sometimes confused and very little attempt is made to introduce characters as they appear. If a good editor had been involved in the initial stages it might have helped.
7) The tone is often rather smug and self-satisfied - he had every reason to be self-satisfied - but not boastful. With a few exceptions he does not make over much of his achievements and is willing to give credit to others. He was more likely to understate than to exaggerate, there was much he could have said in his favour that he left out.

“On reexamination, his Souvenirs are unreliable history; he blandly claims credit for actions where he was not present and blames his failures on his subordinates.' -John Elting, Swords Around a Throne as recently posted by Kevin.
The allegation that he claimed credit for actions where he was not present is entirely (unless anyone knows otherwise) based on Thiebault's allegation that he was not actually present at the actions of his division which led to the rout of the Neapolitan army at Rome in 1798. Thiebault was not there either, and his memoirs have also been called 'unreliable' by Elting. Blaming failures on subordinates was normal practice for generals – certainly Napoleon always did it – one should not expect impartiality on such points.

“Macdonald had a habit of claiming things that he was not entitled to, such as when he described his relationship with his commander, Eugene, in 1809.”
“In short, Macdonald is not a reliable witness when it comes to his own actions, real or imagined. For example, Macdonald claimed to be Eugene's military mentor in Italy in 1809 and he was no such thing. He was a subordinate commander to Eugene, the army commander.” Both recent postings from Kevin.

Macdonald did not claim to be Eugene's mentor, that was the version of Thiers who had read the manuscript and interpreted it in his own way. Without doubt what he wrote is distinctly condescending towards Eugene and there are certainly grounds for feeling he may have been exaggerating his own contribution a bit – more here than anywhere else in the book – but most of what he wrote is quite reasonable given his seniority; to clear up one disputed point, he did not claim to have won the battle of Raab, he made it quite plain that his troops only reached the battle field late in the day and took no part. To a very large extent (there are a couple of pieces I would hesitate to defend) his version of events is as good as any other given the normal level of confusion in accounts of military campaigns. Remember this wasn't being published, he had no reason to denigrate Eugene, of whom he always spoke highly. When Du Casse wrote up the 'Correspondance' of Eugene he was writing in answer to Thiers and, quite rightly, defending Eugene's command; several things he wrote are open to dispute and, in one case he was actually wrong and either deliberately or accidentally interfered with the evidence. His comments have been taken at face value by subsequent authors to the disadvantage of Macdonald.

I haven't yet investigated Macdonald's whole career in detail but I have looked at other sources for most of the events covered by the 'Souvenirs' and have now also read his letters to his daughter for the period. Much of what he wrote can be corroborated at least in part and the discrepancies are not more than should be expected for military memoirs. His reputation for integrity was exceptionally high among his contemporaries and his account of any event has always to be taken seriously though, as with all memoirs, cannot be assumed to be correct in all particulars.

There is a reason for that allegation of 'unreliability' though, during the battle of Hanau where he commanded the advance guard :
'L'empereur parut, suivi de sa garde et d'autres corps; il me demande des renseignements, que je lui donnai, en évaluant les forces ennemies à trente mille hommes au moins. “Peut-on voir sans danger sa position? Ajouta-t-il. - Sans danger, non; mais il faut risquer, comme je l'ai fait moi-meme. - Eh bien, allons!” Et de nous mettre en marche. Comme on s'ébranlait, un obus vint tomber et éclater pres de lui, sans blesser personne; incontinent, il s'arreta, mit pied à terre, et depuis lors jusqu'au soir, il n'y eut pas moyen de le tirer du bois.'

Yes, that's right, he just accused Napoleon of cowardice! Now he was pretty sour about Napoleon in this section, the Elster bridge disaster still rankled, and, in the total absence of any corroboration one should assume that he was placing the worst possible interpretation upon some possibly quite innocuous incident. The funny thing is that (apart from Ramsay Phipps) I can find no writer willing to mention this allegation even to dispute it, it seems to be simpler just to label Macdonald as 'unreliable' and hope no-one will notice.

Susan

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Macdonald's reliability.
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Epstein's reliability.
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Refernce for Clarke's recommendation
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Jean-Jacques Germain Pelet-Clozeau
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MacDonald
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